Communication Connection

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Dr. Olsen Said What?

Friday, June 13, 2014

By: Tabitha Barth

Any COM student who has the privilege of having a conversation with Dr. Olsen often leaves with a sense of awe at his infectious, energetic, and passionate personality. As a sophomore, interviewing the department chair is an intimidating task; however I quickly felt at ease as I began my interview with Dr. Olsen. Sitting in “big-people furniture” as he motioned for us to sit in the living-room setting of his office, we dove right into questions about the department.

When you consult with prospective UNCW students about the COM Department what attributes do you highlight to them that make UNCW’s COM Department unique?

I do not try to compare us with other programs because I am not an expert on other programs. For me I know it is about fit. Students are like plants; they must be in the right environment to thrive. I just hope they get in the right environment. For our department, I focus on our versatility through our core courses: Public Speaking Research Methods, COM Theory, and Rhetorical Theory. I also focus on whole-student development. That is why we have the core skills. I tell parents and students that great people get great jobs. I can say you are going to come out ethical, well-rounded, versatile, and impressive if you do the things you are suppose to do while you are here. Great people also make the jobs they have great. You can see that all around you.

What does our COM Department do, that is different from other universities’ COM Departments, in ensuring their graduates are in the optimal position for applying for graduate school or professions?

We embrace all theory and methodologies, which is not true of all departments. We require Research Methods, and that is really important because there are people who do not know they will like or use research until they are forced to do it. I get an email once in awhile from a student who thought the class was going to be awful, but really found it fascinating, which is great! We embrace qualitative, quantitate, and rhetorical methods, which is a huge advantage in graduate school. The other distinctive we have is that if you are a good student, you want to work closely with our faculty, and you are assertive about pursuing that, you can do it. The Directed Independent Study and Applied Learning opportunities are there; for a department our size that is a bit rare.

Are there any changes in the COM curriculum and requirements that will change for the upcoming catalogue? If so, why are these changes being implemented?

We are trying to play a bigger role in minors and clusters across campus. The new university studies requires every UNCW student to either have a second major, a minor, or a cluster. Clusters are interdisciplinary representing two to three disciplines. Clusters will help students have a much more intentional use of their elective credits. We are trying to create and participate in existing clusters and minors. This is great; it is a good initiative and goal. However, it has a lot of challenges. It is a good challenge, but it is a challenge.

How does the COM Department reach out to COM professionals in the local community?

Some of our alumni in the local community participate as Project Protégé mentors and internship site directors for our students. It is exciting to see them come full circle both on campus and off campus. This is part of what it means to come to a school that has a good reputation. We are careful to find professionals that fully celebrate our mission (education) as a complement to their mission (often job training). These relationships are valuable when we find folks who fully get what we are trying to do.

Is there anything that has made this semester unique for the COM Department? Any goal or vision that you made last year that has been reached?

As a university and department we strive to emphasize Applied Learning. One of the initiatives we have accomplished this year is creating Pier 601 Creative. Pier 601 Creative began with an upper level COM class that allowed Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC), Public Relations (PR), and Digital Media students to work collaboratively with clients on Applied Learning projects. Dr. Persuit and Dr. Bolduc co-teach these students in their area of expertise, and Dr. Persuit runs the overall firm. We will bring on more COM faculty as we grow or on a per-project basis given what expertise is needed.  Ultimately, Pier 601 Creative is going to allow us to work more flexibly with external clients. It will make it a little bit easier for an external client, for example, to give us a budget for a marketing plan, video, or for something they would like to work with us on. This was very difficult without creating this entity. Pier 601 Creative is going to be a great way to do the things we want to do in Applied Learning.

What is the biggest challenge UNCW’s COM department is facing?

The big challenge in our department is how to get our vision financially supported in an era of declining tax dollar support. Our budget shrinks and tightens every year. More of our students want to go to graduate school and that requires them getting to a conference and showing that they have done undergraduate research. Then a graduate school can determine whether or not they will get through their program; they determine if the student has “the goods.” That takes $500 or more. So, how do you communicate the vision? How do you communicate that it is in their best interest as future employers, or as a mom to want to fund this? That it makes their degree look better; they can say, “Oh you graduated from UNCW.” At some point, Duke, Harvard, and all these other schools, not just privates, but even prestigious publics, were not prestigious publics. They were 15, 20, and 30 years old, and they were not yet what they are now. But they became what they are because alumni invested in it. That allowed them to do better things with current students. Which allows them to have a better reputation. The whole thing feeds on itself. This is the biggest challenge we are facing as an academic unit: how to stay excellent, become even better than we are in certain areas, continue to host conferences, and more while the tax dollars shrink.

Leaving the interview, I am filled with pride for UNCW’s COM department. Dr. Olsen’s quiet, soft, and passionate voice is contagious. I am excited to see how the COM department will accomplish these goals and challenges in the next year. More importantly, I am grateful to play a small role in the COM departments development, and I am hoping you are too.